On Gay Pride Day in 1973, someone set fire to the entrance of a gay bar in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Within minutes, 28 people were dead, and 4 more died within the following two weeks from their burns. A mother died along with her two gay sons. A minister burned to death halfway out a window. A man ran into the barâ€™s bathroom to tell his friend the bar was on fire. The friend escaped. The man whoâ€™d alerted him died in the bathroom. Another man lost his partner in the fire as well. He also lost all of his fingers. A gay couple never picked up their two young sons from the movie theater where theyâ€™d been dropped off earlier that afternoon.
And the life of a transgender Mormon was changed forever.
Richie Soleto grew up in the Jefferson Ward of the New Orleans Stake. He attended Seminary classes, participated in Boy Scouts, and considered going on a mission. But after graduating high school in 1970, Richie studied Food Service Management at a vocational school and began working as a waiter in a French Quarter restaurant. Some of the other waiters were gay and eventually convinced Richie to go to the UpStairs Lounge with them one day after work. There Richie met Reggie Adams.
Reggie was a black man from Dallas who was studying at Loyola University in New Orleans. Soon, the two men were a couple and living together in the French Quarter. They remained regulars at the UpStairs Lounge, where the group often put on â€œnellydramasâ€ like â€œEgad, What a Cadâ€ and other plays the regulars wrote and performed. There were tricycle races in the bar. The members of the Metropolitan Community Church, the first church to directly address the concerns and issues of gay Christians, met at the bar for socializing after services. Richie and Reggie met with their friends often and were both at the UpStairs for the Beer Bust on June 24, 1973. They were singing around the piano with other patrons. â€œUnited, We Standâ€ was one of the popular tunes they enjoyed.
Richie and Reggie were friends with Buddy Rasmussen, the bartender, and Adam Fontenot, Buddyâ€™s partner. Reggie asked Buddy if he and Richie could invite Buddy and Adam out to dinner when Buddy finished his shift at 8:00. Buddy happily accepted, and Reggie asked Richie to run back to their apartment a few blocks away and get some extra money.
That request saved Richieâ€™s life.
When he came back to the bar, fire engines were blocking the street. Flames and smoke were pouring out of the building. Buddy survived, leading 25 people out a back exit. When he got down to the street, he looked back up at the bar and saw Adam still sitting on his barstool, screaming and waving his arms amidst the flames. Then a burst of water from a firefighterâ€™s hose knocked him off his stool. That was the last Buddy ever saw of Adam.
Richie never saw Reggie again at all. He spent the next few weeks laying out Reggieâ€™s clothes for him in the morning, hoping heâ€™d walk back in through the door and life would go back to normal. But it never did.
It didnâ€™t help that no churches would bury the dead because they died in a gay bar. Several families wouldnâ€™t even claim the bodies of their deceased relatives, afraid to have people find out someone in their family was gay. The jokes going about town after the fire included such classics as, â€œDid you hear about the weenie roast in the Quarter the other day?â€ and â€œWhere do you bury fruits? In fruit jars!â€
Richie eventually realized he wasnâ€™t really gay. He was a woman in a manâ€™s body. So he legally changed his name to Regina Adams to honor her dead partner and has been Regina for the past forty years.
Regina is featured in the book Let the Faggots Burn: The UpStairs Lounge Fire by Johnny Townsend, and she is also interviewed in the documentary Upstairs Inferno, produced and directed by Robert Camina. (See also The Up Stairs Lounge Arson by Clayton Delery-Edwards.)
Camina is still raising funds for application fees for various film festivals, plus to make Blu-ray discs of the film for those festivals. The arson at the UpStairs Lounge remains the largest mass murder of gay people in the U.S. (if you donâ€™t count the deliberate inaction of the government over AIDS in the 1980s). Regina Adams, a transgender Mormon, was a part of that national tragedy. And she has been a leader for other trans people in New Orleans for decades.